Irish Identity and the Rebellion

One reason the Rebellion of 1916 gained traction, where earlier bids for Irish freedom had failed, is that by the beginning of the 20th century the Irish people had started to develop a sense of national consciousness which had not previously existed.

Centuries of invasion and occupation had decimated the Irish sense of identity. The Irish language was in decline and national self-regard was at an all-time low. The 19th Century in Ireland had brought the Great Famine, and failed rebellions in 1803, 1847 and 1867.

A number of new movements aimed at reviving Irish Nationalism emerged from the middle of 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, including the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA); Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League); the Irish Volunteers; Cumann na nGaedheal, which led to the formation of Sinn Fein; and The Irish Literary Renaissance which sought to make the Irish people aware of their historical literary heritage.

The Irish Literary Renaissance, also known as the Celtic Revival, was greatly influenced by the works of Standish O’Grady (1846-1928), an Anglo-Irish aristocrat whose interest in the myths and legends of the native Irish began when he came across the translations of Gaelic scholar Eugene O’Curry. O’Grady was aware that the stories of the ancient heroes of Irish legend were not the true history of Ireland but he also knew that they had value. He believed that these stories would help restore a sense of national pride, and dispel the notion that the Irish were a feckless and artless race who needed to be governed by their superiors in Britain.

standish book

Ireland had a ‘race history’ which had been guarded carefully over centuries of invasion and occupation, which was passed from generation to generation by poets, bards and storytellers who played an important part in the lives of the Irish peasants.

O’Grady wrote that ‘a nation’s history is made for it by circumstances, and the irresistible progress of events; but their legends they make for themselves….The legends represent the imagination of the country; they are that kind of history which a nation desires to possess. They betray the ambitions and ideals of the people, and in this respect, have a value far beyond the tale of actual events.’

In 1878 O’Grady published ‘History of Ireland: the Heroic Period.’ This was followed in 1880 by ‘History of Ireland: Cuchulain and his Contemporaries.’  His books were not bestsellers at the time of their publication, perhaps because they were presented as the actual history of country, but he is credited with sparking a renewed interest in the oral history of Ireland.

His work had a profound influence on the likes of W. B. Yeats, George Russell (A.E), Lady Gregory, James Stephens, Douglas Hyde and John Millington Synge, amongst other cultural and literary giants who came after him.  One reason for this is because in the re-telling of these stories he found a way to connect the ancient past of the Celtic people with their desire for an independent future.

W B Yeats acknowledged O’Grady as the ‘father of the Irish literary revival’ and referenced him as an influence many times. Yeats produced many works in the same vein. In his introduction to ‘Irish Fairy and Folk Tales,’ he talks of transcribing the stories told by the seanchaí, the ‘ancient hoarder of tales’ on Holy-eve, on creaking boats, and at wakes.  He sought to unlock the histories that were passed from generation to generation and in doing so to restore a pride in Celtic customs and traditions.

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The native Irish people took their storytelling seriously and seanchaí were respected and welcomed wherever they went. Yeats explains, ‘storytellers used to gather together of an evening, and if any had a different version from the others, they would all recite theirs and vote, and the man who had varied would have to abide by the verdict’ – thereby preserving the accuracy of the tale that was passed to the next generation. He observed that the tales they told ‘caught the voice of the people, the very pulse of life, each giving what was most noticed in his day.’

These were folk stories, tales of fairies, ghosts, banshees, mermaids and phantoms, and of families or individuals who were favoured or plagued. They were symbolic stories ‘steeped in the heart,’ tales of ‘birth, love, pain, and death…unchanged for centuries.’ Inherent in the tales are the archetypes that are present in the collective unconscious of every nation and society.

The Irish Literary Revival led to the publication of poetry, prose and drama about the Irish people, by Irish people. A lot of it was written in English, which drew criticism from the likes of D P Moran, a prominent journalist and social commentator at the time who thoroughly disapproved of the Ascendancy class, but English was the predominant language of the people, many of whom could not read or write. In time it led to the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, the first Irish national theatre, and to a pride in the Hiberno-English spoken by the ordinary people, which allows us to communicate what is wonderful about Ireland and its people in our own unique way.

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